Children’s language resilient to masks

Early signs indicate parents may not need to be overly concerned about the effect of masks on children’s language. Photo: Brittany Lee.

Research from the US suggests wearing masks does not interfere with children’s language learning, but Perth pathologists caution it’s “early days”.

Psychology Doctoral candidate Samantha Mitzven and Associate Professor of Psychology Lynn Perry from the University of Miami worked with children aged three to four to test the theory.

They found children still communicate effectively in the classroom with masks on, including children with hearing aids, despite the muffling effects of masks.

“It was comforting for us to know that kids can be in school, communicating with their teachers and friends, and still be safe at the same time,” Professor Perry told the University’s local publication.

Perth speech pathologist Jessie Wetherall said despite the challenges masks can pose, the children she worked with have been surprisingly resilient and adaptable.

“Children may be more likely to compensate for not seeing someone’s face by tuning more into their body language, their gestures, and their tone of voice.”

Jessie Wetherall

“People naturally do accommodate for wearing a mask, you do talk louder, you do exaggerate more, be more animated, to try and get your message across.”

But “it’s definitely early days,” and a lot of research still needs to be done, said Mrs Wetherall.

A black and white headshot of a smiling woman
Perth speech pathologist Jessie Wetherall has had to be resourceful during the pandemic. Photo: supplied.

Mrs Wetherall said while masks do not seem to be having a significant impact on children’s language, any issues they may cause cannot easily be separated from other factors such as increased isolation and parental anxiety, and that it would be extremely difficult to determine the true extent to which masks affect children’s speech.

Masks are no longer mandatory in most settings in Western Australia, including in schools. They are, though, still mandatory in healthcare settings and recommended where physical distancing is not possible.

Mrs Wetherall and her clients continue to wear masks.

Natalie Spears is a primary school teacher in Perth. She said several of the students in her year three class wear masks.

“Parents don’t want their kids getting sick.”

Natalie Spears

“One family is taking precautions because they want to go on holiday.

“Families have been anxious about illness; one even keeping their son home during the mask mandate.”  

One of the challenges faced while wearing masks is modeling pronunciation through mouth position, according to Mrs Wetherall.

But she said there are several ways to work around this issue, by briefly taking off the masks and using a clear screen for protection. Sometimes she records videos to model speech ahead of time. And, she invites parents to get involved.

“It’s actually been a really wonderful chance to encourage parents to participate more actively in our sessions,” she said.  

Jessie Weatherall

“So for them to take their masks off and model something for their child, or to get them to take a video of something they’re doing at home and show me.”

Mrs Spears said communication was hard when children rely on seeing your mouth to sound things out and blend words.

“My accent is from the northeast of England so obviously it made this whole process tricky,” she said.  

Mrs Wetherall encourages parents to spend quality time speaking with their children and to seek support if they have any concerns.

“I think it’s reminded us how important that face-to-face interaction is for language learning, and how that can’t be replaced.”